The future is coming ready-or-not

Ubuntu home server

with 3 comments

One of the most common requests the Ubuntu community asks for is a home server or small business server.  This Beepstar post, The trouble with Ubuntu Server for beginners, encapsulates the argument nicely when the article says:

“95% of the would-be “nixers” are completely stunned, at that point when the Ubuntu Server installation states that it has finished and all that’s offered to the user is a black screen and a prompt line. Users … basically scrap the whole thing, install Windows and use … solutions which lack raw power but come with an comprehensive interface”

It’s certainly an interesting point, we can surmise that one of the things that heavily assisted the growth of Windows on the server was the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that came with NT 3.5 and NT 4. At the time the competitive product was Netware which was the dominant technology for providing servers in LAN’s, and networks were themselves reasonably new for small business networks. Windows rode the networking trend really well, and gave advanced technical users (rather than professional IT staff) the idea that they could run their own servers.

I’ll come back to the question of whether Ubuntu server should be trying to focus in this area for a moment, and just focus on technology problems we face in providing a home server. There’s two elements:

a. A set of common services
The use-cases are relatively straight-forward but the key is the integration.  So we’d want thinks like basic file and print, with network services.

b. A nice user experience
An easy to use interface that can guide the user through the initial installation, but also the reconfiguration and management of the services.

We’ve been working on common services in Ubuntu server and ensuring that they’re well integrated and easy to set-up as this makes every system administrators life easier.  So making LAMP easy to install, integrating the experience of attaching to a Windows Network and the recent e-mail stack work all make setting up common services easy and quick.

To provide a graphical user experience there are a range of options.  There’s some well-known free software options, the two most well-know are E-Box and Webmin.  There’s also commercial control panels such as Plesk which is used a lot by hosting providers.

It’s difficult to see a way to integrate one of these panels as the default way of adminstering  an Ubuntu server as the impact on professional users would be dramatic.  For various reasons these tools assume that you only manage the system through the GUI.  So there’s no way to integrate them that would maintain the freedom of professional system administrators to manage the system using the command line interface.

Meanwhile, professional system administrators face a different set of problems.  The shift of delivering everything through a web server and the introduction of virtualization and cloud computing is causing an explosion of server instances.  So for these use cases the focus is on a small, efficient server with centralised configuration management capability.

The compromise may well be a small, powerful server platform aimed for cloud computing.  Then a range of appliances (virtual or otherwise) built  to meet the specific needs of both professional and personal (ie home) users.  There’s been a few different community efforts along these lines and I hope we’ll see more.

A few members of the Ubuntu Server Team wrote about this a while ago, so check out the posts by Dustin, Soren and Thierry.

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Written by Steve George

June 8, 2009 at 18:27

Posted in Canonical, Linux, Ubuntu

3 Responses

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  1. […] area for a moment, and just focus on technology problems we face in providing a home server. More here We’ve been working on common services in Ubuntu server and ensuring that they’re well […]

  2. The appliance approach is definitely promising. What seems most successful at this stage are hardware appliances (embedded linux?) with a web interface (webmin on ajax steroids?). With falling hardware prices we’ll see more such specialized / simplified appliances.

    I’ve run my own home server for ten years now – starting with Red Hat then moving to FreeBSD – and I’ve tried to sell (as in: convince – no money involved) many technophiles gadget-lover friends to do like me, take an old PC and transform it to a home server.

    While they all liked what they saw at my home all but one shied away and kept having their photos, videos, music and documents on their local box (not even a RAID – the typical backup is a USB drive!).

    The most “advanced” are now moving from the USB drive to the NAS. Usually one of the Western Digital MyBook. Again, they all understand the DRM stuff and why these tools restrict their freedom, but it does not seem enough of an argument for them to consider free alternatives – neither the DIY that I’m still running nor slightly less polished products from less known brands.

    The inevitable reality is that the majority of people are all busy with other things and want a simple turnkey solution that just works. Such a solution can build re-using components from the professional tools but will be inevitably perceived as “crippled” from a professional or do-it-yourselfer perspective. It’s very difficult to satisfy both markets with a single solution. There is a nice term for this in German: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eierlegende_Wollmilchsau

    As for the managing interface, as a DIY I did help myself with webmin in the beginning. Over time I became proficient enough at the CLI that I now barely use webmin – mainly when I don’t have SSH access to the box. Still, at times I am envious of the good web-based configuration interfaces (such as those in internet routers) which could make the admin life easier.

    Yuval Levy

    July 10, 2009 at 18:02

  3. […] not the only one to say this either. “95% of the would-be “nixers” are completely stunned, at that point when the Ubuntu Server installation states that it has finished and all that’s […]

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